Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961

An early black and white photo of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson at center

Like the year before it, 1962 was a good year for Smokey Robinson. Already firmly entrenched as King of Motown at this early hour, Smokey’s biggest successes as both a singer and a songwriter were still yet to come. But 1962 was good; it was very, very good. With the Miracles, he would rack up multiple hits and two songs on this list. As a songwriter, he would deliver a total number of three.

But 1962 would see a lot more for Motown than just the simultaneous growth of Smokey’s reputation and wallet. The year would produce a top 5 pop hit by way of the highly unlikely Contours. It would see Mary Wells rise from a promising R&B favorite to a pop chart sensation. Almost a full decade before the Prince of Motown would cement himself as soul music’s most revered legend, he ditched lackluster jazz for R&B and found his first hit. Brought on board as a mini-Ray Charles gimmick by Miracle Ronnie White, Little Stevie Wonder would release his first, uneven recordings. And desperately waiting in the wings, Motown’s two biggest groups, the Supremes and the Temptations, would keep on struggling (and keep on struggling some more) for a breakthrough hit.

Not Motown’s best year by a long shot, it was Motown’s best year yet. And that was plenty enough. All that momentum had finally reached a breaking point, and Motown was at long last truly full steam ahead. Below are some of of the label’s best early classics.

1. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me

VIDEO: The Miracles’ You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me plays over an image of the group (minus Pete Moore, who was currently serving in the military, but including Marv Tarplin). You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me lyrics.

One of the Miracles best-known songs, it was the single that almost wasn’t. Indeed, it was released as a B-side to the pleasant but inferior Happy Landing1; when DJs found themselves underwhelmed by the A-side, they flipped the disc over. This track seems to be a case of the song being better than the recording; every time I listen to it, I’m a little surprised by the mildly clunky nature of the arrangement and occasionally jarring harmony. Its legend seems to loom a bit larger than the track can actually live up to, and always sounds a little bit better in my head. But whatever the recording’s very real shortcomings — and again, it wasn’t supposed to be a single — once Joe Hunter’s piano and (the recently-departed) Marv Tarplin’s guitar kick in, it takes you on a journey through hook after astounding hook.

Musically and melodically, the song was based on Sam Cooke’s fantastic Bring It On Home To Me2, a fact which Smokey would often acknowledge by appending a verse or two of it to the end of You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me during live performances. Lyrically, it wryly acknowledges the ways in which love is not always welcome and can bring a complex mixture of feelings. “I don’t like you, but I love you” is perhaps the most honest and universal emotion to ever work it’s way into one of Smokey Robinson’ songs.

Continue reading “Top 5 Motown Singles: 1962″

  1. I greatly prefer the Tempts’ exuberant unreleased 1964 recording of that song
  2. On which the harmonies attempted here by Bobby Rogers were much more successfully accomplished by none other than Lou Rawls

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A black and white photo of the Marvelettes (minus Juana Cowart) posing for the camera

In 1959, two Detroiters used an $800 family loan to start a record label and changed music history. One of those people was a struggling songwriter for Jackie Wilson, whose name you’ll know well: Berry Gordy. And the other was his business and creative partner in an artist development firm, as well as his girlfriend: Raynoma Liles1. Hers is a name you will rarely if ever see. Not even making the briefest mention on the Motown Wikipedia page, she has been written out of the story, as Berry first convinced her to put the company entirely in his name, then left her for another woman and pushed her out of Motown entirely. Her book, Berry, Me and Motown, while out of print, is most certainly worth a read; not only the story of Motown’s start, it is a study in emotional abuse and gaslighting, and a testament to the invisible work of women.

When Berry and Ray started Motown, Black record labels weren’t anything new; designed to make music that white record labels wouldn’t produce, would water down, or wouldn’t market — and in any case would steal all the profits from — such labels had however usually been small, rarely achieving more than regional success or a few hits, and generally folding after a couple of years. There originally wasn’t much reason to believe that Motown would be any different. But Berry was fed up with his paltry songwriting royalties from the white record labels, and he and Ray, with the nudging of Smokey Robinson (who has colluded in Ray’s erasure for decades), decided it was time to get into the real money of producing and publishing. When local Detroit singer Marv Johnson wrote Come to Me, they snapped him up, and Motown’s first label Tamla was born. It became something much bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.

Soon, Motown set up shop in a converted house Ray found on West Grand Boulevard. Named for the city whose unique sound they were capturing on record, Motown gained local buzz and started rapidly absorbing the city’s many young Black budding singers, songwriters, and musicians. Some would fade into obscurity without a hit; others would work for Motown for years and make the company what it was without ever seeing their names in lights; but some would become superstars.

For this series, let’s first lay down some ground rules. It will run from Motown’s first year in 1959 to Motown’s last year in Detroit, 1971, with each year after ’61 getting its own post. As the title suggests, the picks are limited to singles; B-sides are eligible, though they will only rarely appear. These are my picks and therefore come with my own preferences and biases; as with any such list, there will inevitably be dissent, which is welcome. I have, however, at least made an effort in the interest of objectivity, and this is generally not a list of my favorite tracks. Selections are based on a combination of quality, legacy, and overall representative nature, and while there is an attempt to balance them, one will sometimes be strongly weighted over the other. In addition to the top 5 picks, an ongoing part of this series will be the bonus track — a great but generally overlooked single from the period in question that isn’t among the absolute best, but still deserves to be heard. Some will be by artists who never made it big, while others will be mostly forgotten tracks by acts everybody knows. These bonus selections will be very strongly weighted towards of my own preferences.

In Motown’s first three years, the releases were far less plentiful than they would become, and far less consistent in quality. Though that elusive Motown Sound would be present almost from the very beginning, it would be a lot more raw and rough around the edges than the label’s best-known, highly polished output. Still figuring out quite what they were doing, some of these tracks are better-produced than others. But they all contain an undeniable charm and incredible lasting power. Occasionally questionable acoustics aside, they still sound great today.

1. Money (That’s What I Want)

VIDEO: Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) plays over an image of a compilation album cover. Money (That’s What I Want) lyrics.

A subject of frequent covers, this 1959 ode to capitalism remains unbelievably popular and relateable to this day. Written by Berry Gordy with early Motowner (and one of their few female songwriters) Janie Bradford, this song essentially served as his life’s motto — a much more charming fact in the broke days when he wrote it than once he’d amassed his fortune. It is truly Gordy’s songwriting masterpiece. The infectious piano riff2, in combination with Benny Benjamin’s ferocious drumming and Brian Holland’s insistent tambourine, all work to make the song instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, the “that’s what I want” refrain, written and sung by Ray, uncredited for so many things, serves as an unforgettable hook. Indeed, Money was quite arguably the song the put Motown on the map, not only providing needed capital but also cementing the label in people’s minds as maybe not just a fly by night operation, after all.

Barrett Strong is not a name that most people remember today, though it should be. His brash performance on this song is absolutely flawless, but singing was not his true gift, and he later hung up his microphone to become one of Motown’s most successful songwriters. Teamed with Norman Whitfield, Strong co-wrote such classics as I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me), Papa Was a Rolling Stone, I Wish It Would Rain, and Cloud Nine. More than five of his compositions will appear in this series overall. Meanwhile, this 1959 classic remains his only hit as a vocalist. But what a hit it was.

Continue reading “Top 5 Motown Singles: 1959-1961″

  1. Soon to be Raynoma Gordy, and later Raynoma Singleton
  2. Played by Barrett Strong himself, rather than a Funk Brother

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Motown Family: Several Motown acts, including The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, during their 1965 UK Motown Revue tour.

Motown is, without a doubt, the greatest record label in American history. It was never even close to the largest. Certainly, it was not the most profitable. If there even could be an award for most ethical record company, Motown sadly would not be its recipient. And in terms of total number of great songs ever released, the significantly longer histories and rosters of big labels would likely put several of them out on top. But for overall quality, Motown remains the undisputed champion.

Other record labels, making far more money, would have nonetheless killed for Motown’s hit-per-single rate. They similarly would have signed a contract with the devil for the efficiency of their assembly line approach. And any assembly line boss would surely marvel at the diverse and high quality output that Motown maintained for several years running while putting on a public face that never broke a sweat.

Readers here will know me much better as a Beatles fanatic, but over the past few years I’ve developed into a bonafide Motown junkie. What started as an impulse $6 purchase of the Big Chill soundtrack became a large box set compilation, and quickly morphed into a significant and growing collection of original Motown records and rarities sets.

A quick google search of the best Motown songs will show that most wouldn’t dare try to narrow down Motown’s enormous output into a mere 5 tracks. But we’ve set a precedent around here, and I’m willing to take up the challenge — at least, with a few caveats. The choices here are limited to singles, which isn’t too much of a restriction, since cream at Motown far more than often than not rose to the top. These are not my favorite Motown songs, either — indeed, only two of the five (#1 and #5) are my favorite song by the artist in question — but the best and most representative, in terms of both quality and status. With great apologies to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s brilliant early 70s output, I’m also restricting my choices to Motown’s glory days, ending with their move away from Detroit in 1971. Similarly (though differently), I further restrict my selections to those songs which all represent that elusive and difficult to define, yet instantly recognizable, Motown Sound. The goal here is not to create a list of the five greatest songs ever released on one of the many Motown record labels, but to list the top five Motown Records™.

Though it was entirely unintentional when debating and creating this list in my head over several weeks, I couldn’t be more pleased or find it more fitting that, including the bonus track, each of Motown’s greatest years from 1963 to 1968 are represented here. Each of Motown’s greatest and most prolific songwriters/producers, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, also sees their way onto this list at least once. And most, though not all, of Motown’s most legendary acts are also represented.

1.  The Tracks of My Tears

VIDEO: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (minus Claudette), dressed in white suits, lip sync their song The Tracks of My Tears on the set of a television show. The Tracks of My Tears lyrics.

Rightly labeled the King of Motown, Smokey Robinson was many things. One of the greatest vocalists to ever grace the label’s record grooves, their first superstar songwriter and producer, and easily their most elegant lyricist. In this track, the Miracles’ greatest and most celebrated, Smokey gives us his most vivid and haunting image: a person whose face has been scarred from crying too many tears. Everything about this track is exquisite perfection. From Marv Tarplin’s melancholy opening guitar riff; to the Miracles’ dazzling harmonies, with my favorite Miracle Claudette Rogers Robinson (not shown in the video) shining at the top; to Smokey’s delicate, quietly pained lead vocal; to the tasteful, subtle orchestration. As the music and Miracles’ vocals collectively swell for “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you,” you can rest assured that Motown never did it any better, and neither did anyone else.

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Anna Brown, a Black woman with a ponytail, looks at the cameraTrigger Warning for medical neglect and abuse, police abuse, and discussions of the child welfare system

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:

Anna Brown wasn’t leaving the emergency room quietly.

She yelled from a wheelchair at St. Mary’s Health Center security personnel and Richmond Heights police officers that her legs hurt so badly she couldn’t stand.

She had already been to two other hospitals that week in September, complaining of leg pain after spraining her ankle.

This time, she refused to leave.

A police officer arrested Brown for trespassing. He wheeled her out in handcuffs after a doctor said she was healthy enough to be locked up.

Brown was 29. A mother who had lost custody of two children. Homeless. On Medicaid. And, an autopsy later revealed, dying from blood clots that started in her legs, then lodged in her lungs.

She told officers she couldn’t get out of the police car, so they dragged her by her arms into the station. They left her lying on the concrete floor of a jail cell, moaning and struggling to breathe. Just 15 minutes later, a jail worker found her cold to the touch.

Officers suspected Brown was using drugs. Autopsy results showed she had no drugs in her system.

Six months later, family members still wonder how Brown’s sprained ankle led to her death in police custody, and whether anyone — including themselves — is to blame.

The way the Post-Dispatch exploits family members’ personal sense of guilt that is a normal part of grieving, equating it with much larger forces, would have you believe that Anna Brown’s death was just a tragic accident. But the way Brown died was not the result of a few bad choices. It was the result of a myriad of institutional violences: white supremacy, the broken health care system, police brutality and the prison industrial complex, the racism and classism of the child welfare system, ableism and its intersection with racism, dehumanization and criminalization of (suspected) drug users, and the lack of housing as a human right, among others. Anna Brown did not die with the dignity we afford to human beings, but with the contempt we reserve for garbage. And a woman’s humanity is not just forgotten and cast aside with no systemic reason.

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Troy Davis (seated) surrounded by family members

On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was killed by the state of Georgia for the murder of a white police officer, despite incredible doubts about his guilt and many years of strong efforts to save his life. Hopefully you’re familiar with his story; I was writing about it years ago, and many others never stopped. To call his execution a travesty of justice doesn’t quite cover it.

Davis’ family has suffered a terrible string of tragedies. Shortly before Troy’s execution, his mother Virginia died, having long been brokenhearted about what was done to her son. Less than two months after Troy was killed — following a cruel delay in which his family briefly thought Troy was getting another stay of execution — his sister Martina Correia died from cancer.

The Davis family still has outstanding funeral and medical bills for Martina that they must pay.

Jen Marlowe, a journalist who knows the family and has written extensively about Troy Davis’ case for years, has started a fund to help them pay their bills, setting a goal at $8,000. Unfortunately, fundraising efforts plateaued around the $6,000 mark, and I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks as the goal has struggled to be met. The deadline has already been extended, but even with two weeks remaining, at the current rate of fundraising the total will surely wind up short.

Troy Davis’ case mobilized countless racial justice and anti-death penalty activists, and the day after his execution thousands of people donated to organizations working to end the death penalty. Undoubtedly, that’s how both Troy and Martina would have wanted it, being valiant fighters not just for Troy’s life, but to end the death penalty as a whole. (Correia was a dedicated board member at the Center to End the Death Penalty.) But surely, they would have also wanted to see their own family provided for and free of the incredible stress of unpayable debt.

The Davis family has been through unfathomable pain and injustice; and for their long, hard, courageous fight, they deserve all of our support and gratitude. Though we cannot grant them justice, the least we can do, if we have the resources, is help minimize their hardships in this small yet important way.

Please give if you are able; even the smallest amounts will help. And just as importantly, help spread the word through your networks to help meet the goal.

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Don Cornelius stands with arms raised on the original 1970s Soul Train set

With my infrequent writing here, I’ve neglected the opportunity to previously mention over the last 18 months my obsession with and love of 1960s and 70s soul music (particularly though not exclusively Motown). And there is no such thing as 1970s soul (or 1970s style!) without the phenomenon that was Soul Train.

This morning I woke up to the devastating news that its creator and host Don Cornelius has died of a gunshot would. Preliminarily, that gunshot would looks to have been self-inflicted. He was 75 years old.

Don Cornelius was an incredibly awkward host. He was a fascinatingly terrible interviewer.

Horribly, I’ve had the second hard shock of learning this morning, he was also a domestic batterer.

And Don Cornelius was a genius, a visionary, a legend, who created and maintained one of the absolute greatest things.

He does not leave behind an uncomplicated legacy, but he will be sorely missed. So sorely, sorely missed.

RIP, Don. To repeat the cliche of the day — for you wrote your own eulogy — as always, in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul.

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Mugshot of Danny Acker, a white man with brown hair and a full beard. He faces the camera while standing against a light blue background.Trigger Warning for discussions of childhood sexual violence, sexual violence in schools, and rape denialism

A story of prolonged sexual abuse against children over 25 years shows the dangers of not believing sexual violence survivors who step forward with their stories. In Alabama, a now-retired elementary school teacher named Danny Acker (left) has been charged with four counts of first-degree sexual abuse against two female students under the age of 12. At the time of his arrest, the teacher allegedly confessed to molesting an astonishing 21 female students throughout his career.

Making a horrific story even worse, the school board knew he had a history of sexual abuse allegations all the way back in 1993, were given the opportunity then to remove him from his position of authority, and chose instead to reinstate his job as a fourth-grade teacher. Indeed, they say that given the opportunity, they’d do it again.

Two longtime Alabama school board leaders are defending the panel’s decision in 1993 to reinstate an elementary school teacher who was accused of molesting a student, even though the teacher is now charged with more abuse.

School board President Lee Doebler and Vice President Steve Martin said students, parents and community leaders encouraged the Shelby County Board of Education to return 4th grade teacher Danny Acker to his Alabaster classroom, and the board agreed 5-0. Doebler and Martin are the only board members who remain from those days, and both said they did the best they could with the information they had.

“Looking back, given the evidence we had I would have made the same vote,” Doebler said. “I wish we had some evidence, but unfortunately, we didn’t.” …

Shelby County’s superintendent placed Acker on leave in October 1992 when a student accused him of touching her improperly at her home. A county grand jury reviewed the case and did not return an indictment.

Martin said the superintendent recommended Acker’s dismissal. The school board held a hearing in February 1993 that lasted more than eight hours and then voted unanimously to keep him.

Martin said there were no witnesses and no physical evidence. He said the abuse was alleged to have occurred during babysitting rather than at the school.

Doebler, who was also the board president in 1993, said many students, past and present, and their parents turned out as character witnesses to support Acker, and the board was heavily influenced by the grand jury’s decision to take no action.

“There was no evidence presented to us to indicate the grand jury was incorrect,” he said.

Martin said Acker’s father, longtime County Commissioner Dan Acker, made no effort to influence the decision. “The dad did not call anyone or discuss it with anyone,” he said.

The tragedy here is not only that so many girls were sexually victimized in ways that can never be erased, but also that when shown quite dramatically and horrifyingly the error of their methods, those with the power to have stopped this abuser still do not see the inherent flaw in their system.

When a young girl reported having been sexually abused by a popular and trusted adult male teacher, the school board failed to treat her testimony with the respect that it deserved. Instead, they sided with power. When given the choice between the word of a young girl and the word of an adult man who wielded authority over her, they chose the adult man. When reflecting on the consequences of potentially making the wrong decision, they decided that an innocent man losing his job would have been a greater travesty of justice than countless vulnerable children being placed at the mercy of a predator. They sided with adults’ rights at the expense of children’s rights, with men’s rights at the expense of girls’ rights. They sided with historically and presently white supremacist and patriarchal standards of “evidence” and justice without thinking twice. And then they appealed to our sense of “fairness” to claim that this is the way it ought to be.

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Chances are, this morning, that you’ve seen the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control statistics on sexual violence and domestic violence. Most notably, you’ve probably seen the new statistic that almost 1 in 5 women have experienced rape in their lifetimes.

That’s a terrifying statistic, though not a surprising one to those of us who have been involved in sexual violence work for some time. In light of this undeniably already awful news, it may seem cruel to point out that the reality is even worse than it initially appears from this soundbite. But I also think it’s necessary.

Firstly, I think it’s imperative to note that these new statistics are inherently cissexist. Definitions in this report assume that women have vaginas and men have penises. There are no individuals who are neither men nor women. Whether any trans* folks were interviewed for this survey is unclear. They may have been disqualified from participation or had their experiences filed under the incorrect statistics. Trans* folks are mentioned exactly once in the full 124 page National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 Summary Report (pdf); it is simply stated that services specifically for transgender people should be designed, with no accompanying information on their experiences or how they have or have not been included in this study. It is almost certain, in other words, that these statistics do not tell us anything about rates of violence against “women” and “men” but rather cis women and cis men.

Secondly, the definition of rape that is used in the NISVS is in one way unconventionally broad. In several other ways, the definition of rape being used is also woefully incomplete. The full sexual violence definitions used for this study appear below.

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The cover of the book "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander. A pair of Black hands grip vertical wooden bars against a dark background.

Few find it surprising that Jim Crow arose following the collapse of slavery. The development is described in history books as regrettable but predictable given the virulent racism that gripped the South and the political dynamics of the time. What is remarkable is that hardly anyone seems to imagine that similar political dynamics may have produced another caste system in the years following the collapse of Jim Crow—one that exists today.

– Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The thesis of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is exactly what the title implies: the U.S. criminal justice system has become a formal if unnamed means of anti-Black racial discrimination and social exclusion analogous to though distinct from Jim Crow. In the United States, Alexander argues, all aspects of this system — from policing to prosecutions to sentences to prisons to post-release restrictions — have not only a disparate impact on racial minorities, Blacks in particular, but were actively designed as a racial caste system and means of social control in the wake of Jim Crow’s collapse. And yet, because the system is officially race neutral and overt racial hostility by individual actors generally cannot be proven, the bulk of society goes around acting as though this racial caste system does not actually exist.

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Currently incarcerated persons are probably already the most isolated individuals in the United States. Those who are not only incarcerated but also the victims of sexual violence while imprisoned face little support, few mental health and recovery services, the ongoing threat of violence, and even retaliation should they speak of the abuse. With their support networks ripped from them, their right to safety revoked, and their abusers (who are most frequently prison officials) having control over every aspect of their lives, they are among the most vulnerable sexual assault survivors.

In light of this, sending a 250 character message of support and greeting during the holiday season may seem a truly underwhelming gesture. It is precisely these same conditions, however, that makes such a small act able to speak volumes. Incarcerated persons are cultural pariahs, socially treated as subhuman, and/or told that they deserve sexual violence as a condition of their detention. A few kind and compassionate words, under those circumstances, could mean the world.

Rafael, a recipient of a holiday card through Just Detention’s 2010 campaign and victim of multiple assaults by state corrections officers, stated:

Here I was in my cell sitting on my bed on Christmas Eve, sad but hanging in there. My thoughts were on my mom who passed on in 2004, and thinking ‘man, this is my 24th Christmas behind bars.’ Then at about 4 pm the officer gave me some mail from JDI. I was surprised because I don’t get much mail. Being incarcerated for so long, friends and family have forgotten me or passed on. When I read the holiday cards my heart skipped a beat and I started to cry. Yes, this 46-year old hard-core convict was crying. The kind words of encouragement, blessing, and letting me know that I’m not forgotten from total strangers from far away shattered my emotions. Please let them all know that I love them all and will cherish their words in my heart. And yes, I will walk with my head up high and will share my story with no shame and will help others that find themselves in similar situations.

Another (anonymous) survivor said:

I have been down since 1998 and have not had a card or letter sent to me, nor a visit. To receive those cards has totally left me speechless. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

While Just Detention International works to eradicate sexual violence in prisons — and other activists do work to more fundamentally dismantle the racist (classist, transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, ableist …) prison industrial complex — please take a few short moments today to send a message to a person who has experienced sexual violence while incarcerated. Your message will be transcribed by hand into a card by a JDI volunteer and delivered to a currently incarcerated person who has experienced sexual violence while detained.

If you’re having trouble knowing what to say, JDI has provided me with some examples of actual messages written by others:

“I wish you hope, healing, and support. Please know there are people fighting for you, even if you have never seen us. Know there is love.”

“May you take comfort in knowing that countless people in the free world care deeply about you and will not stop fighting for justice.”

“From one survivor to another, I send you hope for peace of mind and heart. On both sides of the bars, we give one another strength to go on.”

“Dear Friend, I guess this time of year may feel particularly hard. Please let me take a minute to say that I recognize that your humanity and your safety are worth fighting for regardless of your detention. I wish you hope and joy every day. Be well.”

It is imperative that work to support those currently suffering under oppressive conditions be done simultaneously with work to dismantle the oppressive systems that create those conditions. Ultimately, your words may mean a lot more than you know. Please send a card today and help spread the word.

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